The chaos theory in action

by Mark LeVine

Middle East
The chaos theory in action
By Mark LeVine

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It is perhaps hard for Americans to understand their occupation of Iraq in the context of globalization. But Iraq today is clearly the epicenter of that trend, and in this context chaos is king. Here, military force was used to seize control of the world's most important commodity, oil. While corporate prospectors allied with the US search the country like safari hunters on elephants for any opportunity to profit from Iraq's misery - that's how conspicuous they are - inside the Green Zone their innocuous-looking counterparts draft regulations for privatizing everything from health care to prisons.

It is chaos that makes this whole system possible. Without the chaos, Iraqis would not allow the country to be sold off wholesale, or allow the US troops to remain after the June 30 "transfer" of sovereignty. Without chaos, there is little reason to assume that the imposition of neo-liberal globalization, which has wreaked such havoc in so many other countries of the developing world, would be in the process of entrenchment in Iraq. Without the chaos, there would be more reporting on the appalling conditions in the hospitals and schools, which are violations of the US obligations as occupying power under the Geneva and Hague Conventions.

Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) contractors would have to budget more than US$10,000 to "rehabilitate" each school, and certainly couldn't get a way with a $1,000 paint job, pocketing the rest. Anesthesiologists wouldn't be stuck with surplus needles that are so long they can't be used on children and shorter people, who have to get the more dangerous c-line procedure for lack of the correct $1 instrument.

It is also chaos that allows the mainstream press to focus on the overt violence without addressing what an unmitigated disaster the occupation is viewed holistically. As I was writing this article, I received a call from a major TV news program to join a panel on Falluja. After a 40 minute pre-interview, the producer decided that I "didn't fit into the mix" of the guests he was putting together, which wound up being three middle-aged men: a retired general, colonel and a professor, none of whom had driven on the road to Falluja, and none of whom dared discuss the roots of the deepening quagmire in Iraq.

If Iraq is sliding toward chaos, this is exactly where most Iraqis believe the US wants them to be. A prominent Iraqi psychiatrist who has worked with the CPA and US military explained to me that "there is no way the United States can be this incompetent. The chaos here has to be at least partly deliberate." The main question on most people's minds is not if his assertion is true, but why. In this context, the sending of foreign contractors into Falluja in late-model SUVs with armed escorts - down a street clogged with traffic where they would literally be sitting ducks - only feeds suspicion that the US is deliberately instigating more violence as a pretext for "punishment" and further chaos courtesy of the US military.

Not surprisingly, the angry mob dragging the mutilated American corpses down those streets carried posters of Sheikh Yassin, the slain Hamas leader. In the minds of most Iraqis, America greenlighted his assassination by the Israelis.

If we realize that companies like Blackwater Security services (whose personnel were killed in Falluja) constitute a $100 billion a year business, it's hard to imagine how the people in charge - all well-trained military personnel with lots of combat experience - couldn't foresee they were sending their people into a death trap. Or is it possible that they are that arrogant and that ignorant? I'm not sure which is worse.

Colgate University professor Nancy Ries describes the chaos in Iraq as "sponsored chaos", which fits into the broad definition of chaos theory as an ordered system or purpose underlying seemingly random events. That is, war and occupation are wonderful opportunities for corporations to make billions of dollars in profits, unchecked by the laws and regulations that hamper their profitability in peace time.

Because of this, in the postmodern global era, global corporations and the government elites with whom they work have great incentive to sponsor global chaos and the violence it generates. Several recent books, such as Joma Nazpary's Post-Soviet Chaos or Vadim Volkov's Violent Entrepreneurs, explore how the chaos of the post-Soviet era enabled a "counter-revolution" in Russia and countries like Kazakhstan, where competing networks of groups, from criminal gangs and political parties to families and friends, all compete for resources in the decidedly one-sided contest for power and wealth that is the globalized market economy. Iraq is sadly following this trend.

Yet if Jonathan Steele argued in the Guardian that the US is "creating its own Gaza" through the chaos in Iraq, for me the application of the chaos theory there has created a strange mix of Gaza and Tel Aviv: on the one hand there's the violence of the resistance against the occupation, which feels like Gaza or Nablus - at least you know who your enemy is and who's shooting at whom. But on top of it is the violence of Iraqis against Iraqis - the suicide bombings and assassinations whose randomness gives one the feeling of living in Tel Aviv. Put the two together and the tenseness and violence of daily life in the main cities of Iraq is hard to bear, and it's only going to get worse. Worst of all, the chaos and insecurity make it impossible for civil society to produce an alternative political discourse either for collaboration with or violent religious opposition to the occupation.

The day I returned home I spoke to a leading scholar of Iraqi Shi'ism, who firmly argued against the notion that the US was deliberately stoking the flames of chaos: "Believe me," he said, "they are that incompetent." And perhaps he's right - at least from 10,000 miles away a lot of the mess that is Iraq can be explained by the combination of arrogance, ignorance and ideological bolshevism of the political and military leadership in the Bush administration, coupled with the greed of their corporate sponsors.

But when you're on the ground and you experience the daily impact and scale of the chaos, it's much harder not to understand the situation at least as a combination of what one activist described as "the chaos that is the occupation, plus the chaos the US is specifically creating to further the occupation". Whatever the cause, a lot of Iraqis and Americans are dying needlessly - unless you consider that the billions being made off the occupation, and the larger war on terror, is worth the price in blood and hatred.

Mark LeVine is assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. He is the co-editor, with Pilar Perez and Viggo Mortensen, of Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation (Perceval Press, 2003) and author of the forthcoming tentatively titled Why They Don't Hate Us: Islam and the World in the Age of Globalization (Oneworld Publications, 2004).